This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 242.
Dragon Commander seems like an easy sell to the man on the street. To test that theory, I'll stand in for the man on the street. I'll also be playing myself. Do try to keep up.
Me: “Do you want to play a game that casts you as a dragon wearing a jetpack, and lets you plan grand strategy across a tabletop-style board? Do you want to manage the politics between distinct fantasy races, choosing wildly divergent options to please or alienate them to secure their support in the form of troops and army buffs, before zooming to a real-time strategy battlefield where you can not only directly control your flappy hero, but also an entire fleet of steampunk airships?”
Man on the street: “Yes, I do! Oh God yes! Also, please let go of my arm.”
But the man on the street – unless you pick a very specific street – isn't a game publisher. Dragon Commander is a genre stew. There's some in there, some RPG, some turn-based battling. Jammed together, they're a scarier prospect for funding. Skew the mix and you've got something unwieldy, something less than the sum of its parts.
The game takes place in the studio's created land of Rivellon, home of both the Divinity series, and men who can turn into whacking great dragons. It's one of these men that you'll wear the skin of, flipping between man and dragon-man to progress your war against central antagonist Aurora.
In puny man-form, players live aboard their flagship. It's here you'll be able to pore over the game's continent map and plan your next assaults into enemy territory. It looks like fantasy Risk, as Fahrang Namdar, the game's lead designer, pushes his small stack of unit counters over to face a slightly larger stack of unit counters – this one topped with a little red skull icon. Fahrang has a chance to play cards from a collection before the fighting starts in earnest: these act as buffs for his troops, or his own character in dragon form. He selects a card that lets him lob a set amount of fireballs – “nukes”, as Fahrang calls them – and steams into the real-time battle mode.
Fahrang's little stack of units translates into a small fleet of hovering airships in Dragon Commander's battle mode, all golden and studded with steampunk propellers. His AI opponent's army is smaller, but the continent map's skull icon has become a destroyer: three times the size of the next-largest airship, it's a slowmoving menace to an unwary armada. It's this that Fahrang, in dragon form, heads straight for. A jetpack might seem superfluous for a sinuous sky-beast with a 70ft wingspan, but it affords Fahrang a burst of speed that lets him get around the back of his foe's fleet. He burps out one of his nukes and peppers it with follow-up fireballs, quickly taking it down.
Now he's got more time to tend to his own side. He flips the game into commander view, turning the monitor into a fullscreen map of the combat arena, and ordering his stronger units towards the remainder of the enemy force. He sets weaker units to protect a 'builder', and sends that off to the left.
As the combat airships trade blows with their foes, Fahrang directs the builder to start construction on one of three convenient rock pillars. Players can set up shop on here, cranking out extra troops, researching short-term upgrades, and riddling their spires with protective turrets. Setting his fleet in a defensive holding pattern and using his dragon to whittle away at the glob of enemies, Fahrang eventually builds up enough of a bulwark to start a push on Aurora's forces. Soon, only a few remain flying: Fahrang tosses another nuke to finish them off.
Back on the ship, he's free to move into the captured territory. But there's little time to gloat: he's called into the game's war room by two of his fellow shipmates: a bowler-hat wearing imp and a walking, talking skeleton. These are two of the game's advisors, emissaries from the game's five other fantasy races – Dwarves, Lizardmen, the Undead, Elves, and Imps. Players have the opportunity to side with specific characters on a variety of quandaries in Dragon Commander's RPG dressing. Certain races have certain tastes. The Undead are hyperreligious – this is presumably because if they stop believing in a higher power they will collapse into a small dusty pile – and will bristle at any decision that offends their sensibilities. It's impossible to please everyone, but those you do woo will reward you with bonus cards and campaign map advantages.
Dragon Commander gives both its players and its developers a lot to juggle with. But looking at this early version – with vast changes still being made to all of the game's aspects – it looks like Larian have made something that will be more than the sum of its very different parts.